Sex & Relationships

Consensual nonmonogamy, also known as ethical nonmonogamy an alternate to monogamy.
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The Nonmonoga-Moms Next Door

Not everyone has their needs met in a single relationship, and the only avenue for satisfying those needs within monogamy is cheating. What if there’s a much better way?

Ten months after her husband, Hal, died, Rebecca Woolf posted on Instagram that she was in a new relationship. She hadn’t meant to “‘meet someone’ meet someone,” as she put it. What the 39-year-old, newly single mother of four (and former mega-mom blogger) meant to do was have a lot of casual sex. She ended up in a relationship anyway, she wrote, and not only that, she was continuing to date in the meantime. Then, in parentheses, “that’s for a whole other post about monogamy and how it’s not for everyone. Hi.”

The comments on the post accumulated quickly, mostly from others who felt judged for finding love quickly after loss. But privately, in Woolf’s direct messages, women responded to that last aside. They told her that they, too, wanted to open their relationships, but their husbands had refused or almost certainly would if asked.

A month later, as promised, Woolf posted a follow-up. “After speaking candidly to many via DM, I have come to realize how … women are often assumed to desire monogamy in our relationships when that isn’t necessarily the case. At all.”

This time, the comments filled with women, often mothers, often married, admitting — before God, their employers, and brands that pay influencers — that they, too, were nonmonogamous. Some of them had been for years. “My ex and I started exploring poly in the last few years of our marriage,” wrote one woman. “I realized how much I had overlooked my needs and wants to keep things calm. I realized that ‘good enough’ wasn’t good enough.”

“I had three little kids and my whole life revolved around taking care of them and working...I realized that my world had become very small,” wrote another.

“Im in a monogamous marriage with my husband, which is my personal preference, but I love hearing other people’s sexual preferences and how they explore that,” wrote a third.

“The thing is, it’s not really my husband that’s super nonmonogamous — it’s me. It always comes from me.”

In the last 20 years, nonmonogamy has become far more visible, if not quite mainstream. Consensual nonmonogamy, also known as ethical nonmonogamy, has a long history in the United States, although always on the fringes — a social experiment among the transcendentalists in the 19th century, an extension of the free love movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s, rumored swingers parties in any self-respecting suburb forever thereafter. Today, about one-fifth of Americans have tried it. Between 4% and 5% practice it, which is way less than you might think if you live in Massachusetts or Northern California, where it can seem as if at least one kid in every class hails from a polycule, and way more than you might think if you live anywhere else. There is no published data on how many parents are openly nonmonogamous.

The rationale, which runs counter to the legally enshrined family structure in every Western society, is that some people can’t get their needs met from a single relationship. The only avenue for meeting those needs within monogamy is cheating. In consensual nonmonogamy, there’s a conversation, and then, rather than ending the relationship, one or both partners begin having some type of secondary relationship.

For consenting adults, this makes a lot of sense. When you have children, some mothers are discovering, it makes even more sense. While the risks are considerable — researchers have found that stigma against nonmonogamy is “robust,” not all forms of nonmonogamy are equally satisfying, and all seem to require NASA-level organization and communication — for the women who have embraced it, the upside is higher. While they initially opened their relationships to meet their sexual needs, nonmonogamy has become an outlet that Woolf and other ethically nonmonogamous moms — nonmonoga-moms? — say makes them better primary partners and better mothers.

Polyamory (being in more than one committed, romantic relationship simultaneously), in particular, offers a pressure valve for the untenable two-earner family structure that finally broke during the pandemic. According to the women I spoke with, nonmonogamy works — even better than advertised. It works so well, you might find yourself asking: Why don’t more of us try this? Why haven’t we all along?

Author (and OG mommy blogger) Rebecca WoolfBombaert Patrick/EyeEm/Getty Images, Rebecca Woolf Instagram

Erin Broderick was one of the people who commented on Woolf’s second post. She and her husband of 18 years first had sex with another couple a few months into their relationship, when they were only 19, but it felt very taboo. “I was still a staunch Republican pro-lifer at that point,” she says. The 39-year-old auto insurance adjuster from Omaha and her software engineer husband, who is from Wichita, had both gone to Catholic school; their respective sets of parents are still married. “I didn’t even know that I was bisexual until then. I was more attracted to her than I was to him. She was the one I wanted to explore a relationship with.”

As she remembers it, the encounter left her then-boyfriend (now husband) in tears. “He was like, ‘Does this mean you’re gay and you’re not going to want to stay with me because you want to be with women?’” she says. “I didn’t really have any answers for him, so mostly I was reassuring him that I definitely wanted to be with him, but that I did have strong romantic feelings for her.”

They have been dating other couples on and off ever since. “We just meet other people, form intense friendships with them, then we’re like, ‘Gosh, we really like you. And we would really like to have a romantic and sexual relationship with you.’ It just kind of happen[s] organically.” (They also meet people through OkCupid.)

Their children, ages 16, 14, and 11, know they are nonmonogamous, and while the kids don’t love hearing about it — “they want us to be like other people’s parents” — Broderick has taken care to ensure that it doesn’t impact their lives all that much. When they were younger, she says, “It was very regimented. Our dating lives with other people would take place after the kids were in bed, from 9 p.m. until midnight. Then we [would] start our day again at 7:30 a.m.”

Erin Broderick and her husbandCourtesy of Broderick

Usually, Broderick and her husband both have a relationship with the woman. Broderick may also have a relationship with the man. (Her husband has explored sex with men but isn’t that into it.) “The big thing is, it’s not really my husband that’s super nonmonogamous. It’s me. It always comes from me.”

The prototypical couple who opens their relationship consists of a man attracted exclusively to women and a woman who is attracted to both men and woman, according to Terri Conley, a professor and social psychologist at the University of Michigan whose watershed 2017 study demonstrated that consensual nonmonogamy is as satisfying as monogamy. In another paper, soon to be published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, Conley looks at the ways that different types of ethical nonmonogamy yield different levels of happiness. Polyamorists, those who are in love with more than one person at a time, have the greatest overall relationship satisfaction. The next happiest are swingers — couples who together seek out sex with others. People in open relationships, who seek outside partners independently with the expectation that these extracurricular liaisons will not interfere with the primary couple, come in last.

The study doesn’t ultimately draw conclusions about this hierarchy of contentment, but Conley has theories. Open relationships ironically involve the least openness, which can turn them into minefields of blurry parameters and perceived betrayals. Also, such relationships often open not out of a desire to expand or enhance an already good thing, but as an attempt to fill a void. “I think sometimes they would actually prefer to be monogamous, but circumstances dictate that they’re adopting this approach,” says Conley. “They’re in a long-distance relationship, or their partner is in some way physically not able to do the type of sex they want to do.”

Swingers are happier because their extracurricular encounters are not just known to their partners, but they constitute a shared hobby that couples do together. (Golf isn’t for everyone.) Plus, swinging is associated with the highest sexual satisfaction — the entire activity is organized around seeking excellent sex — and couples who find sexual satisfaction together are generally happier. Polyamorists win because the near-constant open communication and honesty that polyamory requires is associated with better relationships of any kind.

Another of Woolf’s commenters was Kelly Knight, a 39-year-old marketing executive who lives in a house in the Bay Area with her spouse, Mike, a software engineering manager; her other partner, Adam; and Mike’s other partner, Max. Mike and Knight are legal parents to a daughter Knight gave birth to in 2016. In September, Knight had her second child, conceived with Adam, who is on the baby’s birth certificate. All four partners are raising the two kids.

If this sounds complex, it is. The biggest misconception about her lifestyle, Knight says, is that it’s driven by a voracious sexual appetite. “Of course everyone’s like, ‘You’re just slutty,’” Knight says. When she came out as poly to her conservative parents, she recalls, “The first thing my mom said to me was, ‘Oh, are you just having orgies all the time?’ I was like, ‘God, no. There’s so much more talking than orgies.’”

Parenting by committee can be especially challenging — all resentments must be talked out at a weekly meeting, “otherwise the passive aggression can kind of get out of control” — but Knight has noticed distinct benefits.

Kelly Knight and her partnersCourtesy of Kelly Knight

In her household, not only are responsibilities divided between four trusted adults, but because they are coordinating four work schedules and eight date nights even before factoring in household chores and child care, tasks are allocated only according to who is free. “Nobody can just assume, ‘Oh, the moms [Max is nonbinary but was assigned female at birth] are doing this or the dads are doing this.’ It has allowed my male partners, who have always been really feminist, to view my work as just as important as theirs and view their involvement in parenting as just as important, too.”

In the pandemic, when many professional women have seen their careers vanish as child care options evaporated, this has been even more valuable to Knight. “Adam, Mike, and I have been able to work from home, and Max [is] in school. We all take a two-hour shift, which allows the other parents to be at 75% productivity, which is pretty good.”

Her second child’s birth ended up being complicated, which was hard on Knight, but also revealed how polyamory has removed challenges that other women encounter in the baby-making era of life. For one thing, she wasn’t isolated during maternity leave. Her best memory of the past several months is of a night early on in her recovery from a serious bout of postpartum preeclampsia. Her blood pressure spiked, and with it her anxiety. “Max sat with me, and they held the baby, and we watched reruns of Gilmore Girls while I calmed down,” she recalls. She and Max do not have a sexual relationship, but their connection is profound.

“Once you’re a mom, this society wants you to be all mom all the time.”

When Knight’s libido was very low in the months after the baby was born, she didn’t have to defend her disinterest and didn’t feel guilty about it. “If I were in a monogamous relationship, my partner, male or female, would probably be disappointed that I wasn’t up for things sooner, and the focus would just be on me, right? Whereas I can kind of go, ‘Oh well, you have other partners.’”

Last but definitely not least, Max and Mike (Knight’s partners who aren’t her younger child’s biological parents) take the baby for three nights a week, giving Knight uninterrupted sleep those nights. How sexy is that?

Kelly Knight and her partner Max with her younger childJennifer Brister/Stocksy, Kelly Knight

This is not what some people want to hear about nonmonogamy. Despite increased visibility, there remains a profound stigma against those who choose something different. Conley, the social psychologist, says she has never encountered more resistance to publishing her findings than she did when she reviewed the existing research and found no evidence that monogamy offers couples the benefits that people believe it does. “It was like I shot the reviewer’s dog,” she recalls.

For those actually practicing consensual nonmonogamy in their daily lives, the repercussions are even greater. When Broderick and her husband came out in 2015, a friend posted about it on Facebook. “She didn’t use our names, but she was pretty clearly talking about us — ‘People who are failing at marriage, instead of turning to God, they seek nonmonogamy,’ something like that. She just said that we were weak and that we were sinners and blah blah blah.” Not long after that, their nonmonogamous status became public knowledge in their close-knit neighborhood, which Broderick used to think of as fairly progressive, at least for Colorado Springs, where they live. She and her husband stopped getting invited to parties. “It was pretty obvious that they weren’t comfortable with it,” she says. They are planning to move to the more liberal West Coast after the kids leave home.

And this is just what it’s like for white mothers, like the women in this story. Although robust Black communities have built up around ethical nonmonogamy, they have developed in spite of a long history of racism around non-white mothers’ sexual behavior. (See: “Welfare queens.”) Conley observes that most people who participate in her studies have a lot of built-in social capital. “For a very specific, privileged group of women there’s a lot more leeway, and that tends to be white educated upper-middle class to upper class,” she says.

“The first thing my mom said to me was, ‘Oh, are you just having orgies all the time?’ I was like, ‘God, no. There’s so much more talking than orgies.’”

So why is the culture so insistent that monogamy is the only stable adult relationship model? Karen Kramer, an anthropologist at the University of Utah who studies the evolution of human cooperation, clarifies that monogamy is a stable family structure, in part because we’ve used it for a long time. “In all human societies, we do see that pair-bonding is the predominant marital system,” says Kramer.

You might even make the case that late-stage capitalism is dependent on it. Jordan Victorian, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara who is studying the racial history of nonmonogamy in America, argues that monogamy is at heart a structure for channeling economic power. “Monogamy allows people to hold on to and transfer their wealth to their children, and keep the lines of money and property siloed off,” says Victorian. In other words, it’s the core unit of American individualism. “The investment [in monogamy] really is about making people responsible for their own survival to the detriment of thinking about more collective forms of organizing society and economics.”

But most obviously, it’s sexist. Modern monogamy has been a great deal for men, and if women no longer agree to monogamy, plenty of men will face questions that they may never have considered: How do you define a relationship if not by the commitment to sexual fidelity? If you can’t lay exclusive claim or name to your partner or offspring, what does it mean to be a husband and father? “If women are independent financially and can pay for help, then why even have monogamy?” Kramer muses. “What is the benefit?”

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In that context, it’s not so surprising that women often encounter the greatest resistance to nonmonogamy from their male partners. Lee, 38, lives in upstate New York. Her daughter has severe disabilities that were first discovered when she began having seizures as a baby and once had to be resuscitated. In the ensuing months, Lee (she asked not to use her real name) discovered that she craved sex more than she had before, as an escape, a way to feel something other than fear and grief. Her husband was equally distraught, but in response he became completely uninterested in sex. They would sometimes go six months without any. She told him she needed more, but nothing changed. “You get turned down a couple of times, and things get awkward, and then things get more awkward,” she recalls.

Six years into this impasse, she felt tempted to cheat, but she didn’t want to lie to her husband. She proposed opening their relationship sexually. She says he was shocked, “which was almost funny to me. I was repeatedly saying, ‘This is a problem for me. I am a sexual being, and this isn’t OK, and I feel terrible.’” He said if she slept with someone else, it was over. They are now separated.

Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist and one of the world’s leading experts on how polyamory affects parents and kids, encountered a similar situation in her first marriage. Initially, she says, it was her husband who pushed to open the relationship. She wasn’t into it but finally agreed. According to Sheff, “He was very disturbed by the absolute lack of women lining up around the block to date him.” After a few months, however, someone else began pursuing her. When she told her husband she was going to accept the offer, he balked. “He got really upset and wanted to be monogamous.” She says she tried to hold the relationship together for their young children, but ultimately, “I couldn’t get over that level of betrayal.” She’s now married to a woman who has another partner, but doesn’t mind that; Sheff could have other relationships, too, if she wanted. It turns out that she wasn’t opposed to nonmonogamy — she was opposed to her husband’s notion that he was allowed it but she wasn’t.

“I’ve made a point to make sure my kids understand my full humanity and that I’m not just their mom, that I also have needs and wants.”

This double standard, revealed in so many of the private messages Woolf received, makes Woolf furious. “Here are all these women who are like, ‘I want to open my marriage. I want to be with other people,’ and their husbands are like, ‘F*ck no.’ The [women] could just as easily f*ck whoever they want to in secret, but they’re doing it the right way and, still, it’s wrong.”

Probably the most convincing defense of monogamy as the lone healthy adult relationship model is also the last-stand defense of many things: consider the children. It’s one thing to be nonmonogamous in your grad school co-op, but quite another when you’re influencing young minds. On top of that, the archetypal Good Mom, who seems to become more self-effacing by the year, certainly does not have extramarital excursions. There is no Madonna of the Polycule.

When I emailed Brad Wilcox, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and director of the conservative National Marriage Project, for his thoughts on the phenomenon of married women rejecting monogamy, I made no mention of motherhood. Still, he responded with the following statement: “Across cultures, monogamy is a pro-child institution. It maximizes parents’ investments in children and minimizes the likelihood that children are exposed to complex romantic and family relationships that can put them at risk of neglect or abuse. The current interest in consensual non-monogamy will be a disaster for many of the children stuck in families with parents who are more interested in pursuing their own romantic and sexual novelty rather than in giving their children the love and attention they need. And, given that unrelated men are more likely to abuse children than their own parents, it will likely lead to abuse in some cases.” Then he linked to a story on the conservative website The Post Millennial with the headline “Polyamorous man lauded by progressive media charged with violent abuse of five-week-old baby.

The problem with this defense is that most of these statements aren’t true, says Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door and subsequent books on polyamorous families. “A child in a poly family is having the opposite of neglect,” so much so that when kids get old enough to notice the difference between their household and their friends’, they tend to perceive kids in two-parent households as having a “poverty of attention.” Also, parents who’ve slept and regularly see that their own needs are met have more energy for their kids.

Bombaert Patrick/EyeEm/Getty Images, Anna Malgina/Stocksy

The same goes for the unsourced allegations of widespread abuse, Sheff says. “The assumption is that if you’re unconventional in some way, you must have no sexual boundaries at all. That wasn’t the case with gay people, it’s not the case with transgender people who have also been accused of that, and it’s not the case with polyamorists. They are not more likely to molest their children than anyone else.”

Still, the nonmonogamous mothers I spoke to recognized some version of Wilcox’s message coming from their own brains. Even though Woolf says she has never had traditional ideas about monogamy, when she got pregnant at 23, her automatic impulse was to marry Hal. “It felt like that’s what I was supposed to do now,” she says. After her children were born, she felt continued pressure to conform sexually. “‘I’m a mom. I can’t want to have a threesome. I can’t want to be with men and women,’” she recalls telling herself. “We don’t see moms having lives of their own that aren’t pure, chaste, selfless.”

Sheff has seen and heard this over and over again in her work. “Once you’re a mom, this society wants [you] to be all mom all the time — this one calling, and f*ck everything else. For some women, collapsing their entire identity into parenting is the perfect thing; they love it.” Many don’t, though, and women in Sheff’s studies report that having multiple relationships, or just having sexual experiences with multiple partners, helps them push back against their own effacement. “Polyamory allows people to be a different person in their interactions. Adding that to the mix means women who are moms can be all these other things not at the expense of their parenting.” In fact, they say it makes them better parents. “When they get a break, when they get to be their self that drinks wine at 3 in the morning, they come back to their mom self recharged.”

That benefit isn’t limited to polyamory. For Woolf, having no-strings-attached sex with many different people after her husband died was a way of processing her grief and carving out a part of her life as a single mother that is just hers. “I’ve made a point, especially recently, to make sure my kids understand my full humanity and that I’m not just their mom, that I also have needs and wants.” After an encounter with the couple she and her husband have been seeing over FaceTime, Broderick still feels a stab of guilt “that I am not the person who society demands me to be, especially because I am a mother.” But for her, that’s all the more reason not to give it up. "My kids know that I am a woman first and a mother second.”

“How many more years do I have of a working body? How awful would that be to look back and have regrets?”

Even Knight, in the ultimate poly home, has asked herself, “‘Are you corrupting your children [by having them] around this profligacy?’” Her final answer is no. Her kids have four adults consistently, attentively loving and caring for them. Before her older child was born, Knight and her partners had endless “what you’re signing up for” discussions about responsibilities and expectations, probably far more than most pairs of prospective parents have. Rather than being governed by selfishness and hedonism, the life Knight describes is ethical, intentional, and definitely child-centric.

Woolf and Monica DespiertateCourtesy of Rebecca Woolf

The real fear around mothers, in particular, practicing nonmonogamy is that it proves that monogamy actually isn’t compulsory; that it isn’t what all women — not even mothers — “naturally” want. Monogamy doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness or stability; we just say it does. The more you listen to women talk about contemporary monogamy, the more you hear them describe it not just as a sexual capitulation but a mortal one.

“I spent many years thinking that I should be one thing, while simultaneously feeling very strongly that was wrong for me,” says Woolf. At the beginning of the pandemic, she ended the relationship she posted about in 2019. She’s now dating a guy locally in Los Angeles while in a long-distance “whole thing” with another former mom blogger, Monica Despiertate. “Especially after watching Hal die so quickly [after] not knowing he was sick, I look at my body, and I’m like, how many more years do I have of a working body? How awful would that be to look back and have regrets?”